In brief: HR overview at seminar update November 2021

During our Employment Law Update Seminar our MD Vanessa Scrimshaw delivered a presentation that highlighted key areas of HR that are now affecting businesses. Issues raised included many that became more apparent during the pandemic, but others represent ongoing concerns and factors that many employers may need to address.

Mental Health

Currently in the UK the data tells us that, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year; if you work with 40 people, then the likelihood is that 10 of them will be affected by mental health issues at any one time. This doesn’t mean they will be off work, but they may well be struggling and would benefit from support.  

Managers and employers play a key role in improving the mental health and wellbeing of people in the workplace. Having an understanding of what mental health problems are, how to recognise them and how they affect a person’s life, both at work and at home, is therefore vital. 

There is no doubt that the last few years have had an impact on these rates and we know from working with so many of you that this is the case.  Many people would have had some surge capacity at the start of the COVID crisis, which would have carried them so far as we turned our attention to what we needed to do to get through. Some of us will have the resilience to pull through it unscared and bounce back, but not everyone has this level of resilience. 

20 months in – most people recognise they hit a bit of a wall at some point. Even if they were well equipped to shake it off and bounce back. As the pandemic has gone on, various aspects of it have taken a toll on individuals and our staff in different ways. This may be the feelings of isolation and loneliness, the stresses of work, stress of home-schooling, financial and job insecurity, health fears or bereavement. 

The Charity Mind has reported that around a third of people feel that their mental health has become a lot worse since the early months of the pandemic. And, CIPD research has confirmed that stress remains a major cause of absenteeism within UK workplaces at the moment, even as things start to feel more normal.

Pressure performance Curve

We all need pressure, internal and external, to motivate us and produce a good performance – otherwise why would we get out of bed in the morning. The relationship between pressure and performance is a direct one.

As pressure increases our performance improves – this is as true for most of life’s activities. When our performance increases to its maximum across the stretch/strain zones we often feel good about our performance and ourselves, as there is a sense of achievement, learning and progress.

Peak, healthy performance is driven by the movement between periods of intense pressure and activity and periods of recovery. The pressures of contemporary working life often doesn’t allow for recovery and as pressure and demands continue to grow we get pushed or pulled for prolonged periods into the strain/crisis zones. Without periods of recovery our performance will start to decline. We begin to feel high levels of anxiety and the physical, cognitive and emotional signs that we associate with stress.

This cusp point on the pressure performance curve is the point at which our performance deteriorates. It will be different for each of us and will depend on each individual's level of resilience  and the work and social support we can draw on. But as a general rule prolonged periods of pressure without periods of recovery will push us into the strain /crisis zone and it is here that we talk about being stressed. It is here we see the behaviours, feelings and physical signs that we associate with stress. Prolonged periods in the crisis zone leave us feeling out of control and can jeopardise our wellbeing initially but eventually our mental health.

Going forwards, the resilience and wellbeing of ourselves as leaders and managers, and of our staff, will need to be high up on our list of priorities – we need to look after the teams that we have, particularly as we may be working with staff shortages and recruitment difficulties.

This may need to include:

  • Improved communication – to reduce uncertainty where possible;
  • Supportive management styles – to enable managers and supervisors to feel comfortable having difficult conversations with staff about stress and mental health, and to enable staff to come forward;
  • Healthy workplace habits – making sure that staff are taking their breaks, making sure that they’re able to eat healthily and take care of themselves;
  • Flexible working – to recognise that staff may feel nervous about returning to work, whether that is to do with travel arrangements, office arrangements or juggling work and family life again; 
  • Resilience programmes – we run resilience and wellbeing programmes for leaders, teams and individuals to help build up that ability to cope in the face of challenge.

Menopause

October 2021 was Menopause Awareness month and the subject of menopause is gaining more traction. There has been a significant rise in the number of employment tribunals that involve the treatment of workers going through the menopause and experts are calling for a better understanding of the issue among employers.

According to data from the Menopause Experts Group, there were 16 tribunals that cited the claimant’s menopause last year, up from six in 2019 and just five in 2018.

And the first six months of 2021 has already seen 10 cases that reference menopause, which the study projected could total 20 by the end of the year – four times the number in 2018.

In order to avoid claims we need to overcome the taboo of this subject in the workplace and society more generally, so employees are more likely to be honest with their employers about their situation and so managers feel more able to broach the subject and assist employees who are struggling. 

We have a legal duty to ensure working conditions don’t exacerbate someone's symptoms - and to protect employees from discrimination. In some cases menopause could be considered a disability, in the same way as any other physical and mental health condition and many in HR expect the claim trend to continue. 

The role of HR and people managers include:

  • Gauge awareness and understanding among employees, and plan your communications accordingly – don’t assume every woman wants to talk about the menopause or that men won’t be interested.
  • Promote awareness of the typical symptoms and the simple changes that can support women through the transition to all employees. Use gender-neutral language where possible, to help get male employees on board.
  • Provide information on how women experiencing the menopause can get the support they need.

Women over the age of 50 are the fastest growing segment of the workforce, and most will go through the menopause transition during their working lives. But many won’t be able to meet their full potential at work unless they get the right support from their employer. 

It is important to bear in mind that the ‘menopause transition’ normally starts at around 50 years of age, but this isn’t the case for everyone. Perimenopause can begin from as early as a woman’s late thirties and last for years. The main symptoms that may impact at work include:

  • Reduced concentration;
  • Impact on memory – which is often referred to as brain fog;
  • Reduced motivation;
  • Impact on moods – it’s not all about irritability, women may become depressed or anxious;
  • Fatigue.
  • Physical symptoms such as hot sweats, joint pain, heavy and painful periods.

All of this adds up to members of your team working through some challenges and perhaps needing some support from their colleagues.

Working From Home

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has launched a consultation asking for views on whether to make flexible working “the default”. The government has described its flexible working plans as “empowering”, by giving workers “more say over when and where they work”. Certainly it signals an intention to keep flexible working firmly on the business agenda.

People Management magazine has reported that only 17% of employers have returned to it being mandatory to be at work every day, with 61% allowing staff to go into work on a part time basis either on days allocated to them by their employer or days chosen by them. For some staff, the return to the workplace has been welcomed due to the ability to have social interactions with colleagues or to work more easily with better facilities and IT infrastructure. For others, working from home has huge benefits and there is a desire to continue with it on either a full or part time basis. 

In short, the consultation sets out five proposals to remodel the existing legislative framework, as follows:

Should employees be given the right to request flexible working patterns from day one (removing the existing 26-week qualifying period)?

An obvious, but important, point to make is that despite the title of the consultation, the proposal is for a right to request flexible working from day one, not a default right to work flexibly.

Do the eight existing business reasons, as set out in the Employment Rights Act, for refusing a statutory request for flexible working remain valid?

The government acknowledges that there are circumstances where businesses will not be able to offer flexible working, and is clear that employers should still be able to reject a request if they have sound business reason(s) for doing so.

Should employers be required to suggest alternatives if they intend to refuse a request?

Many employers are already doing this but clear and practical guidance on, for example, potential alternatives and whether the rejection of them was reasonable would be needed if it were to become a requirement.

Should the administrative requirements around flexible working requests change - specifically, whether more than one request a year should be permitted and whether the three-month period for an employer to respond to a flexible working application should be reduced?

Arguably, if responses to the consultation suggest that more than one flexible working request can be made in a 12-month period, that may have the greatest impact for employers - certainly in terms of potential workload for their HR teams. And employers would need clear guidance on how to deal with the scenario where an employee submits the same request for a second time, shortly after the first.

Unpaid leave for carers

The government has also announced that it intends to introduce a right for unpaid carers to take one working week of unpaid leave per year. It is proposed that this will be available as a day one right. Details about eligibility (e.g. who the employee is caring for and how the leave can be used) will follow but we are told it will be broadly defined. Legislation to introduce this right will be brought forward when parliamentary time allows. Any change is likely to be late 2022 at this stage.

Recruitment Issues

The pandemic and uncertainty about precise immigration rules had made it hard to prepare for the end of free movement for most EU workers on January 1st 2021.

The government has been reluctant to ease its immigration rules. Last month the business ministry rejected a call from retailers and logistics firms for an exemption for truck drivers, and said the industry should improve pay and conditions instead.

We’re seeing recruitment difficulties across all sectors for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most talked about are HGV drivers and food production where the shortage has been impacted by Brexit, the leisure industry where the shortage has been impacted by a combination of COVID and Brexit with many staff moving out of the leisure industry due to the job insecurity of the last 18 months, and the healthcare sector with a shortage of GPs and more people moving out of the health sector after the difficulties of working through COVID.

It is very difficult to come up with an answer to this recruitment crisis. Where the pool of candidates is small, employers need to work harder to make themselves more attractive to candidates. This might include:

  • Improved packages – if you can’t compete on salary, can you offer other terms that other employers can’t such as more holiday, flexi-time, discounts on your products, or salary sacrifice schemes
  • Flexibility – lockdown forced many people to work differently with the result that many people have enjoyed greater flexibility over their working hours and the ability to work from home or hybrid-work.
  • Personal development – if you offer training and development to staff, or there are promotional opportunities, put it in your job advertisement. They may have aspirations that you meet and your willingness to invest in your staff will be an attractive quality.
  • Values – for many candidates, particularly millennials, it is important for their employers’ values to mirror their own values. If you have strong ethical values such as actively promoting equality, supporting charities or caring for the environment, then shout about them.

New Pay Rates

New research has found that UK employers are planning to give their staff an average annual pay rise of 2.9% in 2022.

Average rises in 2022 are anticipated to be higher in the media, leisure and hospitality, and high tech sectors, at 3.3%, 3.2% and 3.1% respectively. 

Extra Bank holiday

Employers will need to communicate with staff to ensure that the company’s position on the change and additional day in 2022 is made clear, with regards to the Bank Holiday moving to 2 June. The wording of an employee’s contract will be pivotal to how employers manage the situation as it will dictate whether employees can expect an additional day off for the extra Bank Holiday, or whether it restricts Bank Holiday entitlement to the usual 8 days.